Duchy in northeastern France. A center of artistic creativity during the 1400s. Rivaled the Kingdom of France in political power, and France could've been absorbed into Burgundy instead of the other way around.

Burgundy was founded in 1363, when John II of France gave it to his son Philip (1342-1404). Burgundy attained the height of her power under Philip the Good (1396-1467) and through marriages, inheritance, purchase and conquest, its territory was soon extended. When Philip's successor, Charles the Bold, died in 1477, Louis XI of France took Burgundy back into his empire.

Burgundy was an important cultural center of the early Renaissance. The dukes of Burgundy were patrons of both art and music. Some of the greatest artists of the time, including Jan van Eyck, were drawn into the sphere of the Burgundian court.

The history of Burgundy stems all the way back to before the Carolingian Empire. Before Charlemagne expanded across middle Europe, the Burgund Kings had resided over the Kingdom of Burgundy. After being absorbed into Charlemagne's empire, and with it's dissolution in 814 CE, middle Europe had fallen into three kingdoms. The strongest of these were the East Kingdom, which comprised of the duchies and counties of Germany that would soon become the Holy Roman Empire, and the West Kingdom, which comprised of the duchies and counties that would eventually become France. The Middle Kingdom, situated between the two, was the richest and largest, comprising of the Low Lands (Netherlands), border states of both future French and Holy Roman Empire territory, and the entirety of Italy, excluding the southernmost tip, still held by the Byzantines. Its weakness lied in being spread over such a large distance, being wedged between the other two kingdoms, and in its chaotic states. The Middle Kingdom was short lived and slowly dissolved into independent counties and duchies that squabbled amongst one another. Many of these were annexed as Imperial (Holy Roman Empire) territories, while some remained independent on the French side, but were either vassals of the King of France, or would eventually become so.

Of these duchies, one was the Duchy of Burgundy. It was possibly the largest and most powerful of them all, and it was definitely the most unique. It presented a problem for the Holy Roman Empire, in that the border it drew meant that Burgundy lay on both French and Imperial territory. It remained an important power for many years, and was a constant thorn in the side of the Empire. The Empire could not extend into France, due to many reasons that do not belong in this writeup, but had to annex Burgundy, and so a solution was devised: the partitioning of Burgundy. The Empire invaded Burgundy and the duchy was divided in two according to the Treaty of Verdun in 843 CE. The French side retained the same name, while the Imperial side became the County of Burgundy. The County was formally included as an Imperial province, while the Duchy became an independent state until 1031 CE. After this, it became a fief held by Otto, a member of the French royal family, in lieu of the King of France. Here Burgundy's age ends - or so it was thought. Little did France nor the Empire expect that the partition would be temporary.

The beginnings of Valois Burgundy - Phillip the Bold, 1361-1404

In 1361 CE, Otto's line ran out suddenly with the death of Phillip of Rouvre. With no male heir, by feudal law, the duchy was required to be divided up amongst the female heirs. This is a problem for all Kings, as not only does it create instability and reduce the wealth of a province, but it means that the King now has to contend with several noblemen holding land, where before there was only one. Therefore, throughout the Middle Ages Kings took great leaps and bounds to prevent such divisions. In this case, the current King, Charles V (Charles the Wise, do not confuse with Charles Habsburg V), awarded Burgundy to Phillip the Bold, a relative of Charles', as alluvial land. And so begins the period of Valois Burgundy, or better known as the Grand Duchy of the West.

As one might expect, Phillip's first goal was to reunite the Duchy of Burgundy and County of Burgundy (also known as Franche-Comte by this stage). The County still remained an Imperial province, which made it exceedingly difficult to achieve this goal. However, and luckily for Phillip, it had fallen into the hands of Margaret of Male (also known as Margaret of France) through marriage into the Imperial duchy of Bavaria, and her German husband had died prematurely. Even luckier still, Margaret was the heiress not only to Franche-Comte, but also to Flanders, Artois, Lille, Douai and Orchies in the Low Lands; and Rethel and Nivernais in eastern France (touching to western border of the Duchy of Burgundy) by her father, Louis of Male, Count of Flanders. Louis intended to marry Margaret to Edward III, son of the King of England, but Phillip made his move. The price was dear, however: Louis demanded that three provinces, that had been annexed and added to the French Royal Domain, to be returned to Flanders.

This was not a request Phillip could fulfill, but he was not the only one who had much to gain from this marriage. Charles V had to ensure that the Low Lands would not fall to the Plantagenets of England, and so wanted to ensure Phillip married Margaret. While the ceding of these territories damaged the power and prestige of the French crown, it was light in comparison to allowing the Low Lands fall to England. And so Charles V agreed to the terms and Phillip and Margaret were betrothed in 1384 CE. At this stage, the Valois Duke was still very much a French nationalist, and in support of the crown. He fought beside Charles V in The Hundred Years War, and accepted he was subject to the King. There was no animosity between the French crown and the now enlarged Valois domain, and Charles V never could have predicted this would change.

This was to change, however, and quickly. In 1380 CE Charles V died, leaving his brother Charles VI, only twelve years of age. To prevent a minority government, he appointed the princes and councellors of his reign to share in the administration of the country until Charles VI was of age. This institution did not last long, however, and almost as soon as Charles V had died, the three princes, Louis of Anjou, John of Berry and Phillip began squabbling. Several times military engagements broke out, but political maneuvering was only ever the real battlefield. A shaky compromise was eventually made, and Phillip, being the most powerful, managed to come on top. He ceded the title of regent to the oldest prince, Louis, but only on the condition that he would step down the moment Charles VI rose to claim the throne. Through Phillip's doing, this was not long off, and despite his young age, Charles VI was annointed King of France in 1388 CE. Phillip acted as Charles VI's advisor, and so had much sway in French politics, but this sway was about to increase. In 1392 CE, Charles VI went mad, and was no longer fit to run the country. This was perfect for Phillip, as he was already in the position to sieze more power. At this stage, Phillip, more or less, ran the affairs of France.

An unremarkable reign - John the Fearless 1404-1419

Phillip died in 1404, leaving the Grand Duchy of the West to his son, John the Fearless. John was less apt than Phillip, and Louis of Anjou took advantage of this, rising in an attempt to reclaim some power. John responded by hiring an armed gang to murder Louis; the assassination was obvious, and Phillip was forced to admit to the fact. Through diplomacy, however, Phillip managed to escape retribution, winning Paris over to his side. The result was more costly than he expected, however, as civil war between the Orleanists and Burgundians began to brew.

The Dauphin, son of Charles VI and Count of Armagnac, sided with the Orleanists when war broke out. This drove John away from the crown, and straight into the arms of the English. Burgundy was still the greatest military power in France, and Henry V of England was scrambling to gain their favour. John was still apprehensive about entering an alliance with the English, still considering himself a Frenchman, but could not resist allowing his enemy, Armagnac, to be militarily crushed. He agreed his neutrality in the coming battle, and the English humiliated the French forces led by the Dauphin at the Battle of Agincourt.

Furious, the Dauphin sent an embassy to John requesting his audience. The two met at the bridge of Montereau, and there he was assassinated by men hired by the Dauphin in 1419 CE. It was this act that severed the last links between Burgundy and France, and set the mighty Grand Duchy of the West against the soil it sprung from.

Conquests abound - Phillip the Good 1419-1467

Phillip the Good, son of John, succeeded and immediately ran to the English. In 1420, the Treaty of Troyes was signed wherein Phillip recognised Henry V as the true heir to the French throne, Henry V recognised the Grand Duchy of the West as outside the Royal Domain, and an alliance against the French was signed between the two. Even still, Phillip considered himself French deep down, and animosity between the two was ample. Beyond this, English and Burgundian interests conflicted, especially since the English held Calais, a territory in the Low Lands which Phillip had ambitions to unite.

Whereas the Valois Dukes hitherto had been, mostly, working for the good of France, Phillip was the first to work for the good of Burgundy alone. Phillip was the one to hatch the dream of recreating the ancient Middle Kingdom, and here begins the golden age of Burgundy - but it was one that would eventually lead it down the path of destruction. Phillip was clever, patient and wise. He knew that the goal he had was a monumental one due to one fact; and that was the fact that Burgundy was tenuously wedged between the great powers of France and the Empire. Regardless of the fact that Burgundy remained the greatest French military power, hitherto it had been under the protection of France, but now it had no such protection. Thus, war with the Empire was something Phillip had to carefully avoid.

Through numerous dynastic marriages Phillip added a large number of Imperial provinces, in the Low Lands and further south; and through war Phillip added French royal provinces (see Appendix 1). Phillip approached the Emperor Sigismund to discuss the prospect of turning the County of Burgundy into a Kingdom, and thus freeing Phillip from the influence of the Emperor - but, as you might expect, he was quickly rejected. Nevertheless, Phillip's expansion brought Burgundy the wealth and fame that brought it the name of Grand Duchy of the West. The palace of Burgundy became the envy of all of Europe, and its wealth and splendour was renowned throughout. An envoy from England, whom was a personal attendant at the King of England's palace, stated that he had never before seen such wealth and luxury, his mind boggling at the very sight of it. This wealth was derived from the industrial towns of the Low Lands, especially Flanders, Artois, Brabant and Hainaut. These towns were immense centres of trade, importing from every European and Muslim nation that had any raw materials of value to trade, then exporting the highest quality products of Medieval Europe.

Phillip bolsted Burgundy's armies vastly, making them an even more fearsome power than before. Their relations with the English were quickly disintergrating, however. By 1433 CE the English were beginning to lose the war against the French, and when Henry called upon Phillip he blatantly dishounered the alliance. Officially, the alliance stood till 1435 CE, though the Burgundians had stopped aiding the English all together since 1433 CE. Now Charles VII (the Dauphin) sought to rectify the situation between the nations, and opened up negotiations with Phillip. The Dauphin won Phillip back on side, but the cost was the ceding of the Macconais territories, freeing Phillip from vassalage to France, the awarding of crown taxes to Burgundy and awarding Phillip the ability to appoint twelve counsellors to the Parlement of Paris. The Grand Duchy of the West had reached its height. It was an independent nation, its territory larger than ever before, its military enough to rival the French and even the Empire, and most of all, it was the richest nation in all of Europe.

Things were not to last, however. Relations between Phillip and Charles VII quickly deteriorated, with Charles VII breaking the agreement with Phillip and making it very difficult for Phillip to collect the crown taxes and appoint counsellors. This relation was further poisoned when an argument broke out between Phillip and Charles VII son, Louis XI. Charles VII died in 1461 CE, but relations between Phillip and Louis XI never improved. Phillip died in 1467 CE, leaving the nation to his son Charles, with affairs back to Burgundy set against France.

The downfall of Burgundy - Charles the Reckless 1467-1477

What John the Fearless lacked in ambition he made up for in sensibility. Charles the Reckless (also known as Charles the Bold, but the former is far better fitting) was quite the opposite. Charles inherited his father's dream to revive the Middle Kingdom, as well as the poisoned relations between France and Burgundy. He immediately began setting out to extend the territory of Burgundy, and began raising an immense army. He borrowed money from countless banks throughout the Low Lands, indebting the nation, but allowing him to raise one of the largest, and by far the best outfitted, army in Europe. The Emperor Maximillian began to fear Charles, and so approached him to open negotiations over turning the County of Burgundy, and its subsequent Imperial territory, into a Kingdom. Negotiations failed however, as Charles felt he was not being offered enough and the Emperor felt he was being asked too much.

Charles had the goal of uniting the corridor between Burgundy proper and its holdings in the Low Lands. This meant the annexation of Lorraine and Alsace. Charles immediately went to war against the Empire in Lorraine and Alsace, Upper Alsace falling in 1469 CE, as well as marching against Gelderland. In 1473 CE Gelderland fell to Charles and he decided to go to war with Savoy (the Swiss Federation). He was still fighting in Lorraine, however, and had run out of money. The banks in the Low Lands refused to lend him any more money, as already he had taken many loans without repayment. A bank in Italy agreed to finance him, however, and so he raised another army and marched on Savoy. His army was decimated by the Swiss pikemen at Neuss in 1474 CE. The same year Charles signed a new treaty with the English, recognising Edward IV as the heir to the French throne, and in a rash frenzy assaulted the French, with the remaining troops from the campaign in Savoy and the guard left in Burgundy, in an attempt to shatter Louis XI's hold on France. Charles was defeated and forced to retreat.

In 1475 CE Charles won a great victory in Lorraine, annexing the province. He had achieved his goal - Burgundy had united the middle corridor between France and the Empire; to an extent at least. This was to be very short lived. Louis XI acted quickly, forming an alliance with Savoy and the exiled Duke of Lorraine. The three put pressure under Charles, and stemmed his sudden burst of expansion. To make things worse, Charles had drained the treasury, his vast army had been shattered and was now small in comparison, and the Low Lands were against the Burgundians, sick of being over taxed and not having their loans repaid. In 1477 CE Charles was losing his grip on the state. The Low Lands were in revolt and his army was otherwise engaged when Alsace revolted in the same year. With Charles' army in Alsace, the Duke of Lorraine retook his land, and the French sent aid to the Alsace rebels. Charles continued on regardless, but his army was routed at Nancy by the combined forces of France and Alsace. During the battle Charles was killed, with no male heir to succeed him.

The dissolution of the Grand Duchy of the West - Maximillian Habsburg 1477

With the death of Charles and no male heir, Burgundy was in chaos. By feudal law, the entire nation went to Mary, his only daughter, but Louis XI was not playing by the law. He illegally marched into the Duchy of Burgundy and siezed it, along with several provinces in the French Low Lands. Mary was threatened and had no protector to turn to, and so she sought to marry in order to gain one. The most powerful ally she could find was Maximillian Habsburg of Austria, and so she married him. Maximillian inherited Franche-Comte, Alsace-Lorraine and the Low Lands from this. Thus ends the Grand Duchy of the West.

Appendix 1: Expansion under Phillip the Good

Imperial Provinces
In the Low Lands:

In western Empire:

French Provinces
In the Low Lands:

In eastern France:

Calmette, Joseph The Golden Age of Burgundy
Small, Graeme George Chastelain and the Shaping of Valois Burgundy
Vaughan, Richard Phillip the Bold
Waley, Daniel Later Medieval Europe From St Louis to Luther

Bur"gun*dy (?), n.


An old province of France (in the eastern central part).


A richly flavored wine, mostly red, made in Burgundy, France.

Burgundy pitch, a resinous substance prepared from the exudation of the Norway spruce (Abies excelsa) by melting in hot water and straining through cloth. The genuine Burgundy pitch, supposed to have been first prepared in Burgundy, is rare, but there are many imitations. It has a yellowish brown color, is translucent and hard, but viscous. It is used in medicinal plasters.


© Webster 1913.

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